Warren passes tax in effort to fill vacant buildings

Owners not in compliance would face 10 percent tax

By Ted Hayes
Posted 10/21/20

The Warren Town Council last Tuesday passed an ordinance that gives the town broad power to tax commercial property owners who they believe aren't doing enough to get their buildings occupied.

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Warren passes tax in effort to fill vacant buildings

Owners not in compliance would face 10 percent tax

Posted

The Warren Town Council last Tuesday passed an ordinance that gives the town broad power to tax commercial property owners who they believe aren't doing enough to get their buildings occupied.

In a 4-1 vote, with councilor Joseph DePasquale opposed, the council voted to implement and enforce the tax on any building in town does not meet the law's standards and timelines. The local ordinance is based on a state statue that allows for a 10 percent yearly tax on the assessed value of vacant or under-used commercial buildings, meaning that the owner of a $500,000 building deemed not in compliance could be subject to a $50,000 tax in addition to regular property taxes.

Four out of the five councilors seemed enthusiastic about the tax, saying it's a good way for the town to target buildings that have fallen into disuse and disrepair, despite town efforts to reach out to them and inquire on their status:

If she had a trouble with a commercial property she owned, president Keri Cronin said, "I would have expected the gracious, the generous, and the repeated outreach from the town and I would have engaged with the town to see about how I could develop my property."

"This is legitimate; it's a reasonable way to sort of get people to do the right thing by these vacant properties."

Councilor Joseph DePasquale was the lone dissenter, saying the tax is 180 degrees out of phase with what the town should be doing to address vacant properties.

"As well intended as it is, I'm thinking that we should have a tax incentive more than a penalty," he said. "Maybe in normal times this would maybe not feel like an additional layer of financial hurdle. Government should open doors, not close them. I really don't think that penalizing something that's already a blight is going to help us ... except (to) make the building that much heavier to carry. I don't think we should be doing that as a community."

Though the ordinance applies to any commercial property in town, officials said it grew in part out of the town's experience with three downtown properties, the old stone bank at the corner of Main and Market Street, The former Second Story Theatre at 28 Market St., and the Liberty Street School.

The Liberty Street School, owned by 414 Main Street LLC, has been largely vacant since it changed hands nine years ago. And the other two properties have remained vacant since they were purchased in December 2018 by ZJBV Properties LLC in Manchester, N.H.

Neither Hirum Jamiel, a principal with the Main Street LLC, nor officials from ZJBV, returned telephone calls from the Warren Times this week. Warren Town Planner Bob Rulli said numerous attempts by the town to reach out and inquire about the properties have been met with silence:

"They refuse to return phone calls," he said, adding that the only activity he can see on the ZBJV properties is evidence that the Liberty Street School is being marketed on Craigslist.

"The fact that they're listing (the former school) on Craigslist instead of Zillow or any other commercial broker ... is indicative of what motivated us to have some more incentive to move these people along. If there was an effort ... we would not be having this conversation."

Ms. Cronin, who lives several buildings away from the school, said apart from just ensuring that buildings are filled, the law helps protect the town's historic heritage.

"These property owners are in possession of historic properties," she said. "There's a sort of demolition by neglect that is happening at the bank building, and I know the Liberty Street School is neglected. It's hard to see that happening in our town, that these major buildings are just kind of allowed to exist as they have."

The amendment's use is discretionary, and property owners are given time and other benchmarks which, if complied with, take the tax penalty off the table.

"We need a carrot and a stick," councilor John Hanley said. "We do have a few carrots out there with the storefront revitalization grants and all that. This is the stick. We do have the carrot out there and that's not working very well."

"I understand councilor DePasquale's reluctance to penalize these property owners, but I think they are sitting on these properties with no incentive to do anything," councilor Brandt Heckert said. "That's just not good for the town.

The law at a glance
What: Non-utilization tax for vacant and abandoned properties

Penalty: Those found in violation subject to $100 tax for every $1,000 of assessed value

Where it applies: According to the ordinance, on any building "that has remained continuously unoccupied during the privileged year or a lot with no existing structure this (sic) is littered with trash and obviously abandoned"; "a property containing one or more buildings, none of which were used in whole or in part for one or more dwelling units immediately prior to the time the property became vacant and has been under continuous citation by the building official for a violation or violations of the minimum housing code during the privilege year."

Exemptions: Buildings won't be subject to the tax if they submit a proposed development plan approved by the town planner; that development plan contains a reasonable timetable for the development or reuse of the property; the town planners determines that the redevelopment plan conforms with the Warren Zoning Ordinance. If the planner denies the approval of a proposed development plan, the owner may appeal to the Warren Housing Court.

Read it: The ordinance can be found here.

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